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FORT WORTH, Texas — Simple math shows the difficulty of making the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for the Tokyo Olympics.
The United States can send up to six women to Tokyo – a four-person team and two, potentially, as individuals. But one of the team spots is going to Simone Biles, who in addition to being the reigning world and Olympic champion just happens to be the greatest gymnast of all time.
That means there really are four guaranteed spots available. And there are 29 women besides Biles fighting for them, beginning at this week’s national championships.
“It is kind of nerve-wracking,” Suni Lee, who established herself as a contender for Tokyo with medals on floor exercise (silver) and uneven bars (bronze) in addition to the team gold at the 2019 world championships, said Wednesday.
“It’s kind of hard to tell who the team will be right now,” Lee said. “And having a bunch of new seniors come up, it is a wider selection and it's hard to tell because everybody is so good. So you're really all just fighting for those four spots.”
If you were a fan of the Fierce Five or the Final Five and haven’t paid much attention to gymnastics beyond Biles these past five years, you might be confused about why there’s only a four-person team. And what the story is with the individual spots.
Don’t worry. You are not alone.
The previous president of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) was on an eternal quest to make more room for specialists, gymnasts who only do a few events. So the team sizes were shrunk again for Tokyo, from five to four, and the FIG created a convoluted system to allocate those additional 12 spots.
To add to the confusion, countries were allowed to claim up to two of those “individual” spots – gymnasts who will still represent their country but won’t participate in the team competition.
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This was all a hot mess before COVID-19 upended everything, and it’s even more so now. What you need to know is the U.S. women have locked in one additional spot that USA Gymnastics can assign to anyone, likely someone who has the potential to medal in an individual event.
Jade Carey also has unofficially secured a sixth spot, which is hers and hers alone, as the top vaulter in a World Cup series. Should Carey decide she’d rather be part of the U.S. team and secure one of those four places, however, the U.S. loses her “individual” spot and would only send a total of five women to Tokyo.
Regardless of how many gymnasts the Americans wind up sending to Tokyo, the larger question remains who they will be. Except for Biles, of course.
“Looking back at 2016 … you kind of knew who the top players were,” said MyKayla Skinner, an alternate on the Rio team. “Now it's kind of like, I feel like everyone's struggling through something. So we're all just trying to go out there and do our best and hopefully be in that top four. It’s going to be kind of crazy to see how it all plays out, because I feel like there's a good chance that it could be a couple of different groups of girls that make it on this Olympic team.”
Only the top two at Olympic trials, which are June 24 to 27, are guaranteed spots on the Tokyo team. The other two team members will be chosen based on a variety of factors, including their combined results from trials and this week’s national championships, and team needs.
All four gymnasts will compete in qualifying in Tokyo, with teams dropping their lowest score on each event. But for team finals, only three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count. While Biles is the ultimate security blanket, the Americans still have to find a combination that gives them two more strong scores for each event.
In 2012 and 2016, the team was already pretty obvious coming into nationals with the exception of maybe one gymnast. But gymnasts have barely competed in the past 18 months because of COVID-19, making it impossible to really know who is going to be a factor this summer and who won’t.
Add to that injuries to some of the top U.S. women – Lee, Skinner, Riley McCusker are either nursing injuries or recently recovered from them – and you’d probably have as much luck predicting the team by throwing darts at a dart board right now.
“I try not to focus too much about what can happen in this next month,” said Kayla DiCello, the 2019 U.S. junior champ who made a case for herself by finishing third at the U.S. Classic last month. “I just focus on what I’m doing right now in the moment.”
Good plan. Right now, the only certainty for the U.S. women is that nothing is certain.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Simone Biles is only sure thing for US gymnastics team